Chatbot helps refugees claim asylum

This article first appeared on The Guardian. theguardian.com

Robot lawyer chatbot

The creator of a chatbot which overturned more than 160,000 parking fines and helped vulnerable people apply for emergency housing is now turning the bot to helping refugees claim asylum.

The original DoNotPay, created by Stanford student Joshua Browder, describes itself as “the world’s first robot lawyer”, giving free legal aid to users through a simple-to-use chat interface. The chatbot, using Facebook Messenger, can now help refugees fill in an immigration application in the US and Canada. For those in the UK, it helps them apply for asylum support.

The London-born developer worked with lawyers in each country, as well as speaking to asylum seekers whose applications have been successful.

Browder says this new functionality for his robot lawyer is “long overdue”. He told the Guardian: “I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months – I initially wanted to do it in the summer. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue. I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it.

“That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right.”

Browder began working on this project before Donald Trump’s election as US president but he said he feels it’s more important now than ever. “I wanted to add Canada at the last minute because of the changes in the political background in the US,” he said.

The chatbot works by asking the user a series of questions, in order to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law.

After this, it takes down the necessary details required for the appropriate asylum application – an I-589 for the United States or a Canadian Asylum Application for Canada. Those in the UK are told they need to apply in person, and the bot helps fill out an ASF1 form for asylum support.

Browder says it was crucial the questions were in plain English. “The language in these forms can be quite complicated,” he said.

These details are used to auto-fill an application form for either the US, Canada or the UK. “Once the form is sent off, the details are deleted from my end,” said Browder.

The 20-year-old chose Facebook Messenger as a home for the latest incarnation of his robot lawyer because of accessibility. “It works with almost every device, making it accessible to over a billion people,” he said.

Browder acknowledges Messenger doesn’t come without its pitfalls. Unlike some other chat apps, it’s not automatically end-to-end encrypted. Browder says there is, however, end-to-end encryption between his server and Facebook. He added: “Ideally I would love to expand to WhatsApp when their platform opens up, particularly because it’s popular internationally.”

Once the application is sent, the data is destroyed from his servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot.

The next step is making the service available in more languages. Browder is currently working on translating it into Arabic.

Immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn welcomed DoNotPay’s latest venture. She said: “As an immigration attorney, I can see the major benefits that leveraging sophisticated chatbot technology will have in the asylum application process.

“It will be easier for applicants to submit their applications and it will empower legal aid organisations to assist a larger numbers of clients.

“Asylum seekers want to follow the laws and do everything properly, and this technology will help them do so.”

DoNotPay was initially a free service that guided people with parking fines through the appeals process.

The chatbot was later programmed to deal with other legal issues, such as claiming for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance (PPI). As of August 2016, it also helps with housing issues. The homelessness bot has had more than 3,000 users, with more than 240,000 messages sent and received.

Browder runs DoNotPay alongside his studies at Stanford University. He said: “My degree has become a bit of a side project these days.”

Your phone is now a refugee’s phone

Watch  it on your mobile phone.

If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?

This striking film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience with immediacy the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. Your phone is now a refugee’s phone. Text messages arrive from your family. Suddenly someone contacts you on WhatsApp warning you to turn back. But are they right? Your lifeline is a phone with no signal that’s rapidly running out of battery.
The film is based on research conducted by BBC Media Action, in partnership with DAHLIA, to help humanitarian agencies be aware of the communication issues of refugees in transit. It found that access to internet, mobile networks and social media are critical in helping people feel more informed and better connected. For more information, visit: http://bbc.in/2amio0P

This article first appeared on BBC. bbc.com

Mobiles, Memories and Image

Captured in a searingly real and beautiful photo essay, photographer Grey Hutton (vice.com) shows how memory, migration and mobiles are entangled. In the context of the migration crisis in Europe, mobile phones embody mobility on a massive scale – across oceans not just cities. And with mobility comes memory, travelling as mobile background images. Vice.com

Embedded in the captions are significant narratives about cultural integration: “Nobody wears jeans there”; surveillance “At night, the police could see the light” and affect as a motivator “It’s a reminder of a great moment”.

Smartphones and refugees

 “This is a picture of me and my Christian friend fishing in Kurdistan. It’s a nice memory and I like to have it with me.”

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 “This is a photograph of my wife’s mother. She was killed by IS in Libya. I’ve had this phone for 10 years. I only use it for important things, really.”

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“The journey would never have been possible without this phone. I used it all the time, both on land and at sea.”

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“I used the GPS to navigate the boat to Greece. Only during the day, though. At night, the police could see the light.”

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“This is the son of one of my friends. The photo was taken in Hamburg at a camp we stayed in. It’s a reminder of a great moment.”

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“This is the traditional dress of the Pashtun. It reminds me of where I’m from in Pakistan. Nobody wears jeans there.”

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“We used balloons and tape to protect our phones from the water.”

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“I lost my smartphone in the ocean on the journey. I’m going out buy a new one as soon as I have money.”

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“This is my four children. The phone was really useful for teaching them a few German words and keeping them busy with games while we were travelling.”

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“This picture was the background on my old phone. I don’t know how to transfer it to the new phone my mother gave me. It’s a picture of my brother, who was killed by IS. My other brother was killed by Assad’s forces.”

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“This is my daughter. She’s still in Syria, but we talk every morning, evening and night.”

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“This is a Lebanese pop star called Elissa. During my trip, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music. Now that I’m in Germany, I feel like it again.”

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“Our phones are extremely important to us.” (Somali couple)

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“I chose this background because it reminds me of my mother. I’m 16 years old and this photo is my only way of staying in touch with my family and friends.”

Migration & Mobiles

Disturbing but not unexpected narratives are circulating about migrants and refugees traveling to Europe, centered on nationalist fears, job losses and worst of all – skepticism about the severity of refugee plights. Some narratives find expression in social media memes circulating on Twitter and Facebook like this one…

Australian Body builder not refugees

Vice.com

Props to writer Philip Kleinfeld and Vice.com for exposing the paranoid bullshit content of these memes – which are often blatantly falsified.  The image above has nothing to do with European refugees, in fact it were taken in 2013 on Christmas Island in Australia.

Some narratives have centered on the crippled logic that smartphones are a sign of prosperity and are in conflict with refugee life. While the veracity of memes cannot be trusted, the content of these narratives – specifically the relationship between people and technology and what this signifies – are still incredibly interesting to analyse, succinctly done by the blog Everyday Analysis:

Migration Meme

The horrible meme makes out that fleeing a war zone and the traumas associated with that is not enough to deserve our sympathy if you have a Samsung phone. Possess a symbol of capitalist success and modernity, manage a smile of relief and, in our unforgiving political climate, a traumatised refugee is be deemed a fraud….in the eyes of the British right, why should a refugee not have a mobile phone? …why should a refugee not take a selfie?

In the end this meme shows us three things. First, it quite simply and obviously shows how much hateful fascism there is in our society. Second, it shows how these structures are still supported by a colonial ideology that sees the passage to modernity as the natural course of events and does not want to admit that this trauma and devastation is a modern problem that our own brand of modernity is responsible for. Third, it warns us of the danger of our preconceptions and expectations when it comes to refugees and shows us how deeply ingrained in right wing ideology some of our assumptions may be.

everyday analysis See the full feature on Everyday Analysis.